9 April 2019―Make sure you're hungry when you visit Bayonne!
If you've already eaten, please stay away until you're ready for more.
There are plenty of things to do in Bayonne but eating is at the top of the list - and in my humble opinion, the best way to come here is on an empty stomach.
Chances are that if you're visiting the southwestern region of France and heading into French Basque country, your trip will either start or end in Bayonne.
With its feet firmly planted near the border of France and Spain, this small town of 50,000 pulls from its French and Basque heritages, of course, but also from its Spanish neighbors, a half-hour drive to the south.
It may be less glitzy than its nearby cousin Biarritz, but it has plenty of history and an abundance of charm.
And chocolate. A lot of chocolate.
If I'm starting this story with food, it's because Bayonne's situation makes it a natural magnet for the development of a culinary culture: two rivers converge in the heart of the city, the Nive and the Adour, ensuring produce can arrive quickly and promoting variety. The city is, after all, astride the centuries-old coastal road between France and Spain.
This situation has been exploited over time to fine-tune many culinary specialities, of which two (in my humble opinion) are notable.
Bayonne has an extraordinary culinary distinction in a country already replete with culinary distinctions: it is France's capital of chocolate.
Chocolate came to France from Spain and was first spotted in Bayonne, in the first half of the 17th century, at Louis XIII's wedding to Anne of Austria, the daughter of Philip III of Spain. But it really became popular at Versailles under his son, Louis XIV, who was - as most French children still recall from their history lessons - married to the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain, so another strong Spanish connection.
At the time, chocolate only existed as a hot beverage, albeit a delightful one.
But most of the chocolate stayed in Versailles, at court. Like many an innovation in France, the royals got it first and only later would its use become more widespread.
As for its appearance in Bayonne proper, the city's archives make a reference to something called chicolatte in 1670. Bayonne was a multicultural city and many Jews had settled here, descendants of families that had fled Spain (and Portugal) as a result of the brutal Catholic Inquisition. They were the first in France to work with cocoa beans, producing a more bitter dark chocolate with a high cocoa content. Through them, chocolate use expanded and made its way to the rest of the population.
By the 18th century, most self-respecting homes in Bayonne had a chocolatière, a chocolate-making machine, much as we now have coffee machines.
At its zenith, Bayonne boasted 30 master chocolatiers. Then mechanization arrived; the new generation steam machines were noisy and cost too much, and the electric ones that followed cost even more. The inevitable happened and the number of chocolatiers dwindled to a mere eight.
It's hard to imagine there are so few because walking through Old Bayonne's pedestrian area, there seems to be a chocolate shop on every corner. You'll feel strangely compelled to enter each one (you may be able to fight the compulsion once, but you will eventually give in...)
If you're a true fan, a three-day festival celebrates the arrival of chocolate in France each year. The festival is a pilgrimage for chocolate lovers - think chocolate dipping stands on the streets, gourmet pieces on offer for tasting, plenty of chocolate history, chocolate tours... in other words, everything chocolate.
France, famous for its medieval guilds, even has a chocolate guild through which professional chocolate-makers still hand down their knowledge and secrets.
But what if you're more savory than sweet? (Don't worry, you CAN be both.)
If you're a ham aficionada, then you've undoubtedly tasted ham from Bayonne. And if you haven't, it's never too late, because many gourmet food shops worldwide carry this air-cured traditional ham, which carries a European Union PGI label. PGI, or Protected Geographical Indication, means that a product must be produced in a specific place and in a certain way. In other words, the label guarantees quality and place of origin. This means any ham labelling itself 'Bayonne' must be produced in the River Adour basin and must come from one of eight breeds of pig. Every aspect of production is clearly regulated by the label - how the pigs are fed and identified, how they are transported - everything. No imitations allowed!
If you're unfamiliar with Bayonne ham, you may be better acquainted with its similar cousins, jamón serrano in Spain or prosciutto from Italy. I'm not about to risk expulsion from France by engaging in comparisons, but if you like those two, you'll love this one.
Bayonne ham is first rubbed and then crusted with local salt and placed in a salting tub. Hams are then hung in a cold room at the back of the kitchen - a souillarde - where they'll cool off, a bit like imitating winter. They are dried to maturity, and then coated with a mixture of flour and lard to seal in the flavor. Finally, the best part - testing and eating.
No one quite knows how jambon de Bayonne originated but like most of you, I love a good story. Perhaps the most enduring legend involves a 14th-century wild boar falling into a salty spring and being found, well preserved, the following season. This version would also account for the discovery of the perfect salt required to preserve the ham, which made its export from Bayonne's busy port possible.
Of course, where there is food there is a festival and each spring, Bayonne hosts a Ham Fair, one of the two annual fairs (the other is in August) granted to the city by Louis XI back in the 15th century. Goes to show how long ham has had pride of place here.
You can eat it any way you like - sliced thick or thin, on its own or in a sandwich, or used in a recipe. My favorite? Sliced thinly, very thinly, almost a chiffonade. Then, it melts in your mouth.
Bayonne's trajectory is intriguing - in a quirk of history, it was actually under English rule for some 300 years (which might partially account for British predilection for this part of the world).
Here's the historical backstory. In 1152 Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, who then became King of England. This wedded bliss ushered in a golden age that turned Bayonne into a major trading port between France and England. The city expanded and blossomed, art developed and St Mary's Cathedral was built, but prosperity disappeared once the city fell to the French. The port was eventually abandoned and would only resume its lofty position in the 18th century.
Bayonne remains a garrison town today. In fact, the Chateau-Vieux is an important 12th-century military building which is still in use - as an officers' mess. As befits town with a rich military history, you may have guessed that this is the city that invented the bayonet...
To best visit (and taste) Bayonne, you'll have to spend at least half a day but if you really want to do it justice, try to stay overnight and give yourself a full day to sightsee (and do some chocolate-tasting).
Below I've provided a map with a suggested walking itinerary. If you stop for lunch and take your time at the various museums and at the Cathedral, you'll fill your day. By eliminating the museums or giving them the most cursory look (that would be a shame!) then you can manage to see Bayonne in an afternoon.
Here are some of my favorite highlights.
There is a nebulous legend surrounding the ramparts that dates back to the reign of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor... It involves a war, a fight, and the women of Bayonne, who valiantly defended their city by placing their voluminous cloaks on the ground and filling them with stones. They then asked their children to throw the stones over the ramparts towards the assailants, thus helping win the battle.
Bayonne is a small city now, with three distinct districts, but during the Renaissance, living quarters outside the walls were eliminated and inhabitants forced to move within the city (mostly because the city was safer and could be better defended). In fact, people weren't allowed to live outside the ramparts until 1907, barely more than a century ago.
At first, living within the walled city wasn't a problem - there was plenty of space...
Originally, the city's houses would have been pleasantly spaced, with a small garden, usually in the back. But as the Bayonne population grew, space ran out and the architecture had to be adapted.
First, the roofs were lifted and re-oriented - without cranes or lifting equipment. If they had faced north and south, they were repositioned to face east and west. This expanded their surface and allowed inhabitants to add an extra storey or two to their houses. The bayonnais built over their gardens and extended their homes to the back of their plots. The houses were dark, with light coming in only through the front. Back rooms were illuminated (barely) by an internal well with a skylight. Many of these houses are now being renovated, maintaining their appearance and character but improving the wells to provide more daylight. The effect inside is a bit eerie - but you can see for yourself. When you visit the Cazenave chocolate shop (see below), ask to go to the ladies' room. You'll have to go through one of these light wells surrounded by stairs...
These houses may feel old but by French standards, they aren't - most date back to the 16th and 17th centuries because the original medieval houses burned down. The French, with their old civilization, consider these buildings relatively new.
This is the heart of Bayonne's pedestrian area and as you walk through here, look at the arcades: like Venice, some of the streets were once canals and houses were only accessible by boats entering through the arcades.
Now, shops have taken over the space below the arches and a stroll around here is definitely a challenge for your waistline - this is where most of the chocolate shops are located. Take your time and linger.
St Mary's Cathedral, built over an older Romanesque one, is an intriguing building (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) constructed during different periods. Started in the 13th century, it took over 250 years to complete. The cathedral was designed to attract pilgrims heading towards St James (Santiago de Compostela) but it burned down... and was rebuilt.
Like most French cathedrals it is in the Gothic style, although money ran out after the first tower and the second (on the left) was only built - this time in the neo-Gothic style - in 1882 when a wealthy local provided much-needed funds.
The cathedral is also full of stories. Take the stained glass window you'll find on the left wall, entitled The Canaanite's Prayer. According to legend (again!) it depicts a ransom paid by Francis I to recover his two sequestered children.
If you look up, you'll see a number of different coats of arms along the vaulted ceilings. These often belonged to women donors - a woman would finance the building of a section of the cathedral and leave her emblem stamped forever. The one pictured below belonged to Graciane de Haux, from the Valley of Ossau - which means ours, or bear, in French.
When you visit the cathedral, please don't miss the cloister, an unusual space and one of France's largest.
Try to imagine the central grass expanse filled with people: it was once used as the main public square, and residents gathered here to hear proclamations or listen to the tribunal's judgments, which were also read out here.
The cloister also served as the town market, with the covered arcades providing protection from the rain.
Perhaps its eeriest function was as a cemetery. Commoners were buried under the grassy square (and the bones haven't been removed); notables were placed below the stone floors of the cloister's alleys, while bishops had proper stone coffins which are now empty but still line the cloister walls. The eeriness comes from knowing that the remains of hundreds, maybe thousands, are there, somewhere, underground.
A - Bayonne Tourist Information Office - drop by and have a chat and pick up a map of the city
B - Botanical Gardens, a lovely place for a stroll, especially in summer
C - the ramparts, beyond which it was once forbidden to live; walking along them
D - Place Montaut for unusual architecture and 17-18th century houses
E - Ste Marie Cathedral and cloisters, a highlight of Bayonne
F - Chateau-Vieux - historically fascinating from the outside and now an officers' mess
G - Cazenave chocolates, for the most amazing hot chocolate ever
H - Place de la Liberté - the handsome heart of official Bayonne
I - Museum of Fine Arts - everything from old masters to contemporary artists
J - Basque History Museum (click on the English flag for a quick download overview in English)
And if you'd like to push on further in the Bayonne region, remember that the area is tiny and you can drive anywhere - glamorous Biarritz, charming St Jean de Luz or the lush Basque interior - in well under an hour.